Europe sets rules for mobile phones on planes

New pan-European rules bring nearer the day when passengers will be able to use their mobile phones on planes. The European Commission introduced on 7 April rules on licensing and technical specifications for GSM mobile communication services on aircraft.

Safety is a key consideration. The passengers̵7; mobile phones are intended to connect from the plane (via an on-board picocell, server and modem) to a satellite. But there is a danger of the phones erroneously connecting directly to mobile networks on the ground below. Because the terrestrial base stations are far away, the phones would transmit at maximum power to reach them, which could interfere with and affect the safety of aircraft equipment. It could also confuse the terrestrial base stations, which are not expecting a signal from overhead.

For this reason, a Network Control Unit must be installed in the aircraft. The Network Control Unit drowns out the terrestrial signal with a noise-signal inside the cabin. Also, the minimum height above ground for any transmission has been set by the European Commission at 3,000 metres.

Pricing by telecom operators will be crucial to the success of the new services. They are expected to cost more than regular mobile phone calls. Viviane Reding, the EU Telecoms Commissioner, warned: ̶0;If consumers receive shock phone bills, the service will not take-off. I also call on airlines and operators to create the right conditions on board aircraft to ensure that those who want to use in-flight communication services do not disturb other passengers.̶1; 90 per cent of European passengers take their mobile phones on planes.

In-flight mobile communication services have already been tested in France and Australia. On 2 April, Air France and OnAir (a company owned by SITA, the airline-owned provider of IT solutions, and Airbus) launched the second phase of a three-month trial, using a specially equipped Airbus A318 and Inmarsat satellites. The service currently allows up to six simultaneous calls. A number of telecom operators and airlines are planning to launch services during 2008.

Under the new pan-European rules, an aircraft registered in France or Spain will be able to offer mobile communication services on aircrafts to passengers when flying over Germany or Hungary without any additional licensing. Ofcom, the UK telecoms regulator, announced on 26 March that it will allow airlines to offer mobile communications on board aircraft in line with the common European approach.

Image: 90 per cent of European passengers take their mobile phones on planes. Soon they may be able to use them [OnAir]

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